Health experts are reporting an alarming rise in throat and oral cancers among young Americans, which they suspect is tied to a preventable sexually transmitted virus.
According to researchers from Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit, the number of oropharyngeal cancers — affecting the base of tongue, tonsils, soft palate, and back of the throat — have increased 60 percent since 1973 in people younger than age 45.
The study, published online in the journal Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery, suggests the human papillomavirus (HPV) may be to blame for the cancer rate rise.
"The growing incidence in oropharyngeal cancer has been largely attributed to the sexual revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, which led to an increased transmission of high-risk HPV," said lead researcher Farzan Siddiqui, M.D., director of the Head & Neck Radiation Therapy Program in the Department of Radiation Oncology at Henry Ford Hospital.
"We were interested in looking at people born during that time period and incidence of oropharyngeal cancer. Not only were we surprised to find a substantial increase in young adults with cancer of the tonsils and base of tongue, but also a wide deviation among Caucasians and African-Americans with this cancer."
The American Cancer Society estimates about 36,000 people in the U.S. will get oral cavity and oropharyngeal cancers in 2013; 6,850 people will die. Such cancers are more than twice as common in men as in women.
Research has shown that HPV exposure through sexual activity and infection increases the risk of the cancers, as well as tobacco and alcohol use, according to the National Cancer Institute.
For the new study, Dr. Siddiqui and his colleagues examined the medical records of adults younger than age 45 who were diagnosed with the HPV-related cancers between1973 and 2009.
Over the 36-year period, the majority of patients (50-65 percent) underwent surgical resection for their tumors. Patients who had both surgery and radiation therapy had the highest five-year survival rate.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, HPV is also tied to other forms of the disease, including cervical, vulvar, vaginal, penile, and anal cancer, as well as genital warts in men and women. It is easily spread by skin-to-skin contact during sexual activity.
The CDC recommends the use of HPV vaccines to prevent the spread of the virus and cancer. Two HPV vaccines — Cervarix (made by GlaxoSmithKline) and Gardasil (made by Merck) — are licensed by the Food and Drug Administration and recommended by CDC.
Both vaccines have been proven safe and are licensed for females ages 9 through 26 years, and the CDC recommends all 11- or 12-year-old girls get the three shots of either brand of HPV vaccine to protect against cervical cancer. Girls and young women ages 13 through 26 should get HPV vaccine if they have not received any or all doses when they were younger.
Gardasil is also licensed, safe, and effective for males ages 9 through 26 years. The CDC recommends Gardasil for all boys aged 11 or 12 years, and for males aged 13 through 21 years, who did not get any or all of the three recommended doses when they were younger. All men may receive the vaccine through age 26, and should speak with their doctor to find out if getting vaccinated is right for them.
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